Published on September 7th, 2016 | by Paula Murphy0
Stripping It Back: An Interview with Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor
Best known as Hot Chip’s typically cheeky, earnest-voiced frontman, Alexis Taylor embarked on an exploratory solo adventure back in 2008 trading the group’s funky and percolating electro-pop sound for something a little more introspective and intimate. His 2014 solo endeavour, Await Barbarians, saw him on almost every instrument which led him to create a record that was much more quiet and vulnerable this time round, honing in on his dreamy, effortless falsetto and the beautifully simplistic piano keys. Ahead of his at The Workman’s Club in Dublin on September 15, Paula Murphy talks to the London-born musician.
What prompted you to pursue a solo career as an singer-songwriter?
Initially I made a record called rubbed out which came out on a label called treader in 2007 or 2008. It wasn’t so much a career decision to do something solo I kind of just been writing lots of songs and working on some music outside of Hot Chip and I felt like that music didn’t really fit together as something towards a Hot Chip album. It felt like it was it’s own thing.
Working alone was always part of my musical background. Working alone really felt like returning to something that I had always pursued but had left on the back-burner a bit. I think over time I realised that it was something that wasn’t going to just go away, I wasn’t just going to do a solo record and that that’d be it, it would be out of my system. It was more that I tend to write certain songs that I feel are very personal. That’s not to say that they couldn’t be in Hot Chip but some of them feel like they work best on my own.
Await Barbarians was the next solo one. I was trying to make a record that didn’t just sound like one person doing it so I was dubbing everything, playing drums, bass and percussion trying to make it sound more fully fleshed, almost like a one-man band. And with this record I wanted to move away from those ideas of multilayering and those traits of production. I wanted to do something where it was much purer in production and sound. Where the focus would be on the richness of the piano sound.
With Piano you peel back any kind of gimmicks or artifice, offering a collection of songs that examine mortality, religion, and the creative impulse itself. Can you elaborate a little on that?
I wanted to see what would happen if I played some of these songs at the piano. It was slightly experimental in a way. I just sat down and played through some songs whilst recording and wanted to leave it open ended and work out which songs worked in that format and some of them like ‘So Much Further To Go’ which feels to me like the centre of the record in a way. It felt like the mood of the record was set there. There were other things that were played in the initial session that never made it onto the finished record that may have made the tone of it a bit more varied which could have been a good thing. But I couldn’t necessarily get takes of those songs that I was happy with on the piano so it was a matter of trial and error. I’d listen back to what I’d recorded and if it affected me emotionally or if they felt like a sort of true performance then I kept it and if it felt in any way like it didn’t stand out then it was taken off. I feel like in a way I ended up making a decision not to put more of the more mainstream-sounding tracks on there for the sake of the mood of the record working.
The pared-backed release really allows the magic of your voice shine through. When did you first discover your voice as a powerful musical tool?
Well I think it’s quite a fragile voice but it’s one that I’m pretty happy with. I feel like it could be stronger at times or have a slightly better range but it seems for me that it’s very honest sounding. I was in a band at school and I would write the music and a friend of mine would sing. I was quite happy at being the keyboard player but at some point I wrote a song which had words, I was maybe about 14 or 15, and I think rather than have him singing it I thought I’d try and sing it myself because the words were my own. So that was when I really first started singing, singing into a microphone. At that point I just enjoyed the feeling of singing so I stuck with it. I knew I had quite a strange voice and I knew that it was fairly androgynous sounding, you know I remember even on early recordings people wouldn’t necessarily know whether it was a girl or a boy singing which was quite a funny thing to get your head around. I gradually began to think well that is the voice that I have and it’s certainly more interesting than having a generic sounding voice. So I suppose was at that quite young age that I thought I was struck by the fact that my voice had quite a unique individuality to it.
How were you first introduced to the piano? Does your relationship with the piano go way back?
There was a baby grand piano at home that my mum’s dad has had and then that ended up in our house. So my dad, my mum and my uncle played it and I guess I was introduced to it by playing the likes of ‘Three Blind Mice’ with my dad when I was about seven and then gradually having piano lessons. I was encouraged to play it because I was interested in it and then I was encouraged to play music generally because there was music around. There were records playing all the time as I was growing up and I suppose it could have been any other instrument but the piano was right there in the living room so I was drawn to it. It’s been there as the kind of back bone to what I’ve been able to do in Hot Chip. I’ve always been a keyboard player and that goes back to the piano. So yeah, it felt nice to hone back in on that instrument again.
What compelled you to open up and let us all in with this beautifully intimate release?
I don’t always know why I’m motivated and that’s a good part of the creative process. Figuring out why in the process of making it. I think that the type of songwriting I’m interested in writing is fairly confessional whether it’s with Hot Chip, About Group or me on my own. The type of production and the emphasis on the songs is different here. It does draw your attention more to the voice and the song wrong by stripping away the layers. I was in the process of writing something else before I started this I was recording Piano, some vocals for another band called Honeyfingers from New York. They’re quite a classic sounding country band and they wanted me to sing on their record. And maybe I was trying to move away from what I had just recorded with them and do something that was less busy so that may have been the beginning of why I chose to strip things back a little bit. I think it was partly to do with being on my own immediately and getting away from group decision any group dynamics. I just wanted to make something to see if it would stand out when it was as intimate and quiet as Piano.
Is there anything or anyone in particular that inspires you when creating music? What guided your songwriting process for Piano?
All kinds of people, really. I’m trying to think where to begin! An obvious person is Mark Hollis from Talk Talk. He made a really fantastic solo record simply called Mark Hollis. That’s a very very quiet and beautiful record that was something of an inspiration before making this record. Although I hadn’t really listened to it for years, the atmosphere in it had stayed with me. It was in the background, and the same with the record from Plush, More You Becomes You. Then other people’s records like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska that was simply acoustic guitar, harmonica and vocal which had a very intimate mood had a great influence on me. The decision to make a record alone was important to me.
In a recent interview with Vice’s Noisey (that they cleverly called ‘Not Chip’), you told that Piano is a record made for life between the parties. Does that mean that there’s something on the horizon with Hot Chip?
Yeah, I hope so but I’m not sure we’re at that stage just yet because Joe’s been making music on his own and I’ve been doing this and we’ve been touring still and also Al’s in LCD Soundsystem who recently reformed as you know. So we’ve not really started on another record yet but I have been thinking about it and have done a couple of recording with Joe – just very early stages. It’s great to be writing with him again. I’m sure we’ll get going on something soon!
Lastly, I believe your cat Puddy likes to play the piano too! Is it true that there may be an intro on Piano that Puddy could have played originally?
Yeah, he tends to climb on the upright music piano downstairs which is called a CP 70 by Yamaha. It’s got pickups inside it likes what the likes of ABBA and Prince would have used but in the shape of a baby grand piano. The cat likes to get on top of it and look out the window to patrol what’s going on in the neighbourhood and to see what the other cats are up to. To get on and off that he climbs across the keys. So he does that everyday usually somewhere about five in the morning. So for years now I’ve been listening to him do that and initially, in a kind of jokey way, I thought I could try to write down what the cat had played and then just by accident some of the clusters of notes were really, really nice. It’s kind of a nice way of having a songwriting aid, you know, the cat doesn’t realise that I’m trying to transcribe certain things he plays. And it did certainly help me to write a new song which I sort of demoed towards Piano but didn’t quite fit. So now I think it will make it onto the next one. He would get a credit but I don’t think he’s stand up for PR and interviews!
Alexis Taylor plays The Workmans Club in Dublin on September 15.